Fight Over Denver's Social Pot Use Restrictions Coming to a Head

Inside Dean Ween's Honey Pot Lounge, one of two licensed cannabis consumption establishments in Denver.EXPAND
Inside Dean Ween's Honey Pot Lounge, one of two licensed cannabis consumption establishments in Denver.
Jacqueline Collins
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Denver's social cannabis use program rules have been heavily debated since the voter-approved initiative passed in 2016, but a resolution could be coming soon.

Since it officially opened for business in summer 2017, Denver's cannabis consumption establishment program has approved only two applications, and social consumption advocates blame rules imposed on the program by the city for the lack of interest. As originally drafted, the ordinance would have barred any social pot use location from coming within 1,000 feet of a school. After the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses implementation process, however, the 1,000-foot buffer grew to include schools, daycare centers, drug treatment centers and city-owned parks, pools and recreation centers.

Entrepreneurs and businesses owners once interested in attaining social use permits have complained that the location restrictions prevent them from opening businesses in desirable areas, and they've fought to alter those rules. They could finally get their way if Denver City Council adopts a proposed change to social pot use regulations this month — but they have a powerful opponent.

According to Excise and Licenses director Ashley Kilroy, Mayor Michael Hancock wants to keep the location restriction as is, and instead hopes that a social pot use bill currently in the state legislature will address state laws that add challenges to the city's program, such as banning indoor smoking or any cannabis sales at social use establishments. That bill would also allow local jurisdictions to tweak certain rules to their liking, so Denver's social consumption program could go otherwise unchanged.

Kilroy informed several city council members of the mayor's position in a March email, which was obtained by Westword.

"Social consumption has proven to be one of the more challenging marijuana issues. There are many questions to be examined, and we are closely monitoring the conversations at the state legislature," Kilroy writes in the email. "We had the opportunity to speak to the mayor about this recently, and he opposes reducing the buffer zones. The mayor reiterated his values around the regulation of marijuana — to balance the needs and wants of all while protecting Denver’s neighborhoods, youth and public safety."

Cindy Sovine, a social use entrepreneur, says she believes that using youth and public safety as an argument to prohibit social use establishments is counterproductive to limiting public pot consumption in parks or populated areas. Sovine's application for a cannabis spa was denied earlier this year because her location was 982 feet from Third Way Center, a child-care facility.

"Under the current setbacks, nobody is protected. Children are witnessing consumption everywhere. That's why they designed these places, where visibility can't exist anywhere," she says. "Without these setbacks, we could open areas in reachable areas. There would only be new space along Colfax, Colorado Boulevard, uptown, downtown and RiNo. Everywhere else wouldn't be eligible."

Sovine has an ally on the issue in Councilwoman Kendra Black, who's been pushing to reduce most of those 1,000-foot buffers to 500 feet (retaining the 1,000-foot rule for schools) in hopes of opening up more spaces to social consumption businesses. Black has been leading a task force to examine the licensing program's success, and believes the city's current rules don't honor the spirit of the initiative as approved by voters.

“We have a responsibility to honor the will of the voters,” Black says in a statement. “This modest proposal balances the needs of neighborhoods, businesses and consumers.”

Denver City Council will hold a public hearing on the setbacks today, April 15, with a second reading and vote scheduled for a week from today, on April 22. Sovine believes that one or two councilmembers are still on the fence about easing the setbacks; if they vote in favor, that might be all the support the proposal needs.

With the May 7 city election around the corner, Sovine thinks Denver voters' past support of marijuana measures will put more pressure on councilmembers to ease the setbacks.

"Because of the popularity of marijuana in Denver, because [social consumption] passed in 2016, and all of these other issues, the voters are watching," she says. "If city council is unwilling to enact the voter-approved initiative, they have the opportunity to vote in a new city council."

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